In The Threshold of Manifest Destiny Laurel Clark Shire explores U.S. expansion into Florida in the early to middle years of the nineteenth century, examining in particular “the central role that gender (masculinity and femininity as understood through domesticity) and race (particularly through white women) together played in the effort to turn Florida into an American place” (p. 3). From the outset, Shire asserts that, beginning in the 1830s in Florida, white women emerged as “key actors in settler colonialism” (p. 1). Indeed, for Shire, “the home” is a crucial site for uncovering the gendered dimensions of American expansion. The “threshold” of the book's title, Shire convincingly argues, provides a perfect metaphor for such an analysis. “As the border space between public and private,” the threshold allows historians to more fully understand “the relationship between nineteenth-century nationalism and domesticity” (p. 14). As Shire deftly shows, the home—and white women's place in it—also served ideological, material, and rhetorical purposes. As historians of the American West have amply demonstrated, white women acted as symbols of civilization and provided reassurance of the inevitability of the spread of American values into new settlements. Moreover, domesticity spelled the promise of permanence. White women—abetted by the creation of property laws offering them rights unique to Florida—“created homes for white families … the kinds of ‘civilized’ domestic spaces that national policy makers believed anchored white settlers permanently to a territory that would otherwise remain a hostile frontier” (p. 40). Shire argues that through their ownership of both household property and enslaved people, white women actively supported colonization efforts in the region. Shire reveals how gender also fulfilled important rhetorical purposes. The “Indian depredation stories,” which depicted white women as victims of Seminole violence, after 1835 worked to justify colonial violence by casting “white women and children as ‘innocents’ whom only barbaric savages would attack” (p. 57). Similarly, Shire shows that recolonization policies enacted thereafter relied on ideas about gender to rationalize expansionist policies. “Gender,” she argues, “operated as a way for politicians and military leaders to recognize women … as settlers with direct claims on the nation's resources” (p. 139). From beginning to end, Shire's work demonstrates that white women were directly and indirectly implicated in Florida's colonization. Among Shire's many achievements in this book is her ability to illustrate that white women could be privileged but not empowered by their role in the nation's expansion into Florida. While she carefully reminds readers that though white women were “actors” in settler colonialism and were often bolstered in their efforts by federal policies, those policies were never enacted to empower women or to afford them greater autonomy. Sometimes, white women were little more than “pawns of policy makers and military leaders” (p. 158). Nevertheless, Shire underscores their position of privilege by insisting that white women's gains “came at a high cost for indigenous and black peoples in Florida” (p. 28). She is unflinching in the face of the uncomfortable realities of U.S. expansion, foregrounding white settlers' opportunities against a stark backdrop of racial slavery and Indian removal. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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